Lesson on 'Prayer before Birth' by Louis MacNeice

Lisa Dart

Introduction

This lesson aims to help students develop their own skills at writing poetry by listening to the recording of Louis MacNeice and using the poem 'Prayer Before Birth' as a model for their own creative writing. While having a model to emulate may be seen as restrictive, often the discipline of the model simultaneously liberates and constrains the imagination to frequently better results in the classroom than a very wide brief. That said, some students may prefer to reject the model entirely and work in their own way. Being flexible enough to allow this may also result in powerful poetry or other written forms. Also be prepared to offer students the other poems if they are unable to respond to 'Prayer before Birth'.

Objectives
  • To encourage students' enjoyment of listening to poetry.
  • To encourage students' pleasure in writing poetry.
  • To extend and develop students' appreciation of poetry.
  • To develop students' abilities to understand a poetic response to the world they inhabit, both from the point of view of a poet and from their own experience.
Resources needed
  • Poetry Archive recording of Louis MacNeice reading 'Prayer Before Birth'.
  • Individual hard copies of the poem for students.
  • Copies of 'Strange Meeting' by Wilfred Owen; 'Growing Up' by U A Fanthorpe; and 'You're' by Sylvia Plath.

Teaching sequence of activities

Starter

This lesson might begin with a brainstorm. Ask the students to name as many things as possible that they would consider a 'world issue'. Write their suggestions up on the board. (I imagine they will say things like: terrorism, over-population, Aids, global warming, cancer, incurable diseases, nuclear arms, etc.) You might like to select one or two of their suggestions and open it up by asking the students to say exactly what threatens human beings in this particular case. For example, if you choose 'global warming', the threat may be more precise by listing things like: polar ice caps melting, torrential rains, new deserts forming, etc. This is quite important to do as it helps the students move from the abstract to the specific which may help images form later on in the lesson.

Then ask them to list privately on paper some of their more personal anxieties. (Perhaps suggest they structure their list as past, present or future anxieties. Remind them that this list is private and no-one need know what is on their list unless they choose to show it. Now ask the student to open up one or more of these as they did before.)


Development

Explain to the students that they are going to hear a recording of a poet reading a poem written during the height of the Second World War. (You may want to mention that it sounds slightly old-fashioned so they are prepared for this. You may want to say that the poet is imagining that he is not yet born... but this may not be necessary.)

Play the recording once for the students to simply listen to and gain a general sense of the poem.

Now explain to the students that you will play the poem a second time. Ask them to jot down as many things as possible that they think the poet is frightened by. Ask them to also try and listen for some positive wishes. Students can also be asked to note down any image or phrases that they especially liked for their sound.

For some students a third hearing may be helpful at this stage, or it may be better to wait until they have the poem in front of them for a third hearing.

Briefly share the students' initial responses as a class, encouraging them to use technical language wherever possible by example, but only as it naturally arises.

Distribute hard copies of the poem and play MacNeice's reading again. Students can be encouraged now to underline on their sheets the images, phrases etc. You may also ask someone or several students to read the poem stanza by stanza and take some more developed responses about what they think the poem is about and how the poem is written. Students should be able to identify the effects of line length, repetition, rhyme, assonance, alliteration etc. (Students may enjoy saying at loud some of the images or phrases that they find most compelling. They can do this all at the same time or all the students who have chosen the same ones speaking together, or simply in pairs.)

Now ask the students to have a go at writing their own version of 'Prayer Before Birth', emulating the style of MacNeice. They may even like to use the opening phrase for each stanza: I am not yet born. But they should try and make the rest of the poem full of their own personal and 'world' concerns, whilst still following the form of the MacNeice. (Some students may find writing in this form difficult and could be allowed to try a free verse poem or other type of writing.)


Plenary
  • A good way to conclude this lesson may be to hear work in progress. Students might be happy to share a stanza or more of their new poems. Hearing work of others at this stage can be very inspiring to other students.
  • You may also like to play the recording again.
  • Ask students to bring a more polished version of their poem to the next lesson.

Learning outcomes

  • Students will have listened to and discussed a poem by Louis MacNeice.
  • Students will have explored some of the problems of their personal and collective life.
  • Students will have written their own poems/stanzas of a poem.
  • Students will have extended their knowledge and appreciation of poetry.

Extension Activities

Students may like to:

  • Read 'Strange Meeting' by Wilfred Owen - which explores another unexpected conversation - and try writing their own version based on a conversation between two individuals (ones the student selects) after their death.
  • Make their own recordings of their own poems.
  • Read other poems by Louis MacNeice (e.g. 'Soap Suds' and 'Snow').
  • Research and present a summary of the life of MacNeice (using the summary on the Archive site and other relevant information) and choose some more of his poems that they think might help other students understand his work.


  • Possible adaptations, differentiation

    It may be better for students who find writing a complete poem difficult, especially if they are new to creative writing to ask them just to concentrate on a single stanza, but one which incorporates a particular technical feature specifically, e.g. alliteration, rhyme etc. Students might also enjoy drawing some of the images from the MacNeice poem or from their own lists. Sometimes beginning with a drawing is a good way in for less able students who might then build up written images from their own pictures. (Stevie Smith talks on the Archive about how drawing inspires her own writing in her introduction to 'Not Waving But Drowning', and you might wish to listen to that and encourage the students about it as a very good way of beginning.)


    Further Reading

    'You're' by Sylvia Plath
    'Growing Up' by U A Fanthorpe
    'The Divine Comedy' by Dante (an extract from one of the circles of Hell)


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